Detroit organizer, scholar and beloved comrade Kristian Davis Bailey is en route to France to discuss/further Black-Palestinian joint struggle and solidarity. French settler colonialism runs deep through both Turtle Island and Palestine and this little essay is inspired by his trip and efforts.
Settler colonialism and imperialism have linkages and traces across the globe. What follows shows linkages between Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians (and others) through the the spectre of French settler colonialism and imperialism, with various sites in France being host to discussions of Black-Palestinian solidarity during Israeli Apartheid Week this year.
Starting in Detroit where I’m writing, French colonization of Turtle Island was no less catastrophic than the British or Spanish, even if circumscribed by other imperial powers over time. Locally in what the settler society calls Detroit, the French under the leadership of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, started the destruction of Ojibwe society through the commodification of furs, introductions of European diseases, frontier homicides (though less common than the British later), and introduction of alcohol (a colonial history of alcohol is yet to be written though is direly needed).
Early French settlers brought African slavery with them during conquest. Alternately put, French settler colonialism built an anti-Black world as it destroyed a native world. As Bill McGraw writes for Deadline Detroit, “In 1750, for example, toward the end of the French regime, more than 25 percent of Detroit residents kept slaves.” He continues, “Many roads, schools and communities across southeast Michigan carry the names of old, prominent families that owned slaves: Macomb, Campau; Beaubien; McDougall; Abbott; Brush; Cass; Hamtramck; Gouin; Meldrum; Dequindre; Beaufait; Groesbeck; Livernois and Rivard, among many others.”
The wealth from French colonialism on Turtle Island did not match the profits of French slave colonies in the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Yet the French fur and slave empire in Detroit is part of the colonial and imperial power that, over a century after France left North America after being expelled from Haiti in modernity’s most important revolution, brought France together with the U.K. to create the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up Southwest Asia between the U.K., France and Russia. Sykes-Picot created the basis for British colonialism in Palestine, a regime that facilitated Zionist settler colonialism. Without the wealth from selling African people as property and colonizing Turtle Island, France would have never had the power to participate in and shape Sykes-Picot.
Another key French settler colony, Algeria, began again to face decolonial opposition and organizing shortly after Sykes-Picot (though not because of it). Over the ensuing four decades the French regimes brutally, but unsuccessfully, suppressed Algerian decolonial agitation and revolt culminating in the Front de Libération Nationale-led rebellion that ended French rule in 1962.
Israel has always needed a powerful sponsor and France played that role beginning in 1954. According to Michael Laskier, the Mossad created underground paramilitary units in Algeria that were active in fighting decolonial FLN actions against Algerian Jews (whom anti-semitic French colonialism had positioned as a privileged native caste, one ‘closer’ to European-ness than Algerian Muslims). Israel also supported French rule at the United Nations, repeatedly siding with France during votes on Algerian independence and nuclear weapons tests in the Sahara.
For its part, France provided Israel with advanced arms and helped it build an aircraft industry and nuclear weapons. France supplied the aircraft Israel used to invade Sinai during the Suez Crisis, the October 1956 joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. In 1959 France permitted Israel to build the Fouga Magister jet under license while over the decade, selling Israel even more advanced fighters like the Mystère. It was with French arms that Israel attacked Egypt and Syria in June 1967. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria and in the end Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Occupied Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Occupied West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
In the latter two cases the technology Israel – a settler colony whose existance is partially dependent on the Sykes-Picot Agreement France helped create and implement – developed as a result of its French-armed attack on African soil reverses course and flows from former client to patron for its own invasions of African countries. In this way France profits immensely from actions it supposedly embargoes.
These are some of the entanglements of settler colonialism and empire that flow through France, Palestine, Detroit and Algeria.